Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Picasso’s unusual linocut technique

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – February 2011. Follow the link to receive this free monthly newsletter.

Brassaï recounted in his book "Conversation with Picasso" how D-H Kahnwweiler, the art dealer, described to him the peculiar way Picasso used linocuts:

« D-H Kahnwweiler: They are amazing, isn’t it? Picasso was an innovator in this field, as in many others ... Five years ago he started engraving into a linoleum block a portrait of Cranach’s wife. Then he got the idea - instead of running a block for each color – to carve again and again a single block. In seeking its own means of expression, he boldly innovates in each process and brings it to perfection. At first he merely used three or four colors and he now handles twelve colours prints using the same block! It's diabolical! He must anticipate the effect of each color, because here there is no coming back! I do not even know what to call this mental operation...»

"Portrait of the Painter Pablo Ruiz Picasso" sculpture by Francisco López Hernández in La Merced Square, Málaga, Spain [Source: Wikimedia]

As the art dealer pointed out, Picasso’s process is very complex. It shows that Picasso has a great capability to think visually, like a chess player thinking of the ten moves ahead based on his next move.

This unique technique also means that these linocuts were, by definition, limited editions. At the end of the process, the linocut plaque was reduced to the last marks on the paper.

Saper Galleries has a very good article on the different printing techniques that Picasso used: Printmaking Media Used by Picasso.

Related articles

Working out tones with linocuts

Monday, 28 March 2011

Lectures on art by John Ruskin

This is a review of the book Lectures on art by John Ruskin. A free electronic version of Lectures on art is available in various formats on the site of the Gutenberg Project.
“Lectures on art” is a compilation of seven lectures the artist and professor delivered at Oxford in 1870. Ruskin stayed in Oxford between 1870 and 1875. His system of teaching was based on the methods of Da Vinci (“We will take Lionardo's treatise on painting for our first text-book”) and Reynolds.

Portrait of John Ruskin by Frederick Hollyer, 1894. Source: Wikimedia

The first lectures are full of moral considerations that may have an hstorical and biographical interest, but limited practical use to today’s artists. For instance, Ruskin states that: “Landscape can only be enjoyed by cultivated persons; and it is only by music, literature, and painting, that cultivation can be given.”or that “fine art had, and could have, but three functions: the enforcing of the religious sentiments of men, the perfecting their ethical state, and the doing them material service.”

There are also a number of inspiring comments on art and the practice of art. Here is a digest of interesting quotes from these Lectures on art.

On works of art

“Every good piece of art, to whichever of these ends it may be directed, involves first essentially the evidence of human skill and the formation of an actually beautiful thing by it.”

Simplifying how you see the subject

Ruskin comes back to the same idea in different places of the lectures:

“all objects are seen by the eye as patches of colour of a certain shape, with gradations of colour within them. And, unless their colours be actually luminous, as those of the sun, or of fire, these patches of different hues are sufficiently imitable, except so far as they are seen stereoscopically.”

“All objects appear to the human eye simply as masses of colour of variable depth, texture, and outline.”

“Consider all nature merely as a mosaic of different colours, to be imitated one by one in simplicity.”

On lights and shadows

“But every light is a shadow compared to higher lights, till we reach the brightness of the sun; and every shadow is a light compared to lower shadows, till we reach the darkness of night. […] Every colour used in painting, except pure white and black, is therefore a light and shade at the same time. It is a light with reference to all below it, and a shade with reference to all above it."

On coloured shadows

“Painters who have no eye for colour have greatly confused and falsified the practice of art by the theory that shadow is an absence of colour. Shadow is, on the contrary, necessary to the full presence of colour; for every colour is a diminished quantity or energy of light; and, practically, it follows from what I have just told you--(that every light in painting is a shadow to higher lights, and every shadow a light to lower shadows)--that also every colour in painting must be a shadow to some brighter colour, and a light to some darker one.”

“In nature, dark sides if seen by reflected lights, are almost always fuller or warmer in colour than the lights”

“It is an absolute fact that shadows are as much colours as lights are; and whoever represents them by merely the subdued or darkened tint of the light, represents them falsely.”

A Vineyard Walk, Lucca. Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour, 33.5 x 42.3 cm – Source: Wikimedia

On texture

“Now textures are principally of three kinds: (1) Lustrous, as of water and glass. (2) Bloomy, or velvety, as of a rose-leaf or peach. (3) Linear, produced by filaments or threads as in feathers, fur, hair, and woven or reticulated tissues.”

On the importance of perspective

“Your first duty is to learn perspective by the measures of everything."

On drawing

“Whenever you take a pen in your hand, if you cannot count every line you lay with it, and say why you make it so long and no longer, and why you drew it in that direction and no other, your work is bad.”

Related resources

Friday, 25 March 2011

Drawing as a memory tool

Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlass by John Ruskin. Pen, brown ink, ink wash (lamp-back) and bodycolour, 47.7 x 32.7 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England [Source: Wikimedia]

" And whether you are drawing a piece of Greek armour, or a hawk's beak, or a lion's paw, you will find that the mere necessity of using the hand compels attention to circumstances which would otherwise have escaped notice, and fastens them in the memory without farther effort."

John Ruskin (in “Lectures on art”)

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

How to describe your artwork - mnemonic

Alyson Stanfield reminded all artists the proper way to describe their art: “Don’t forget that artwork is always listed as height by width by depth in inches or centimeters.” In other words: “Always H x W x D”. Read the whole article Crediting your artwork for the fine details or refer to Alyson’s excellent book I'd Rather Be in the Studio! (Affiliate link).

The trouble is that I can never remember the correct order when I need it (typically if I write an article for the blog or post a new painting on the website). So, I created a very simple mnemonic to help me to remember: How We Describe art.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The joy of sketching

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – January 2011.

Sketching is a wonderful way to sharpen your observational skills, gather material, capture memories and further your technique. It is a crossover between journaling and art practice as you record everyday life moments or scenes on your travels. Artists have always used sketchbooks and carried them around when travelling. Famous examples include Turner, Delacroix or Van Gogh.

Sketch on Moleskin notebook - Done with Faber Castell PITT artist pens

Sketching does not cost much; it takes no time at all: so, what are you waiting for?

The main requirements for my sketching material are to be portable and easy to set-up and use. A hardback sketchbook provides a good support and removes the need for a drawing board.  There are many options and your choice will be guided by the technique you use. If you add washes of colours to your line drawings, the paper needs to be thicker than if you just use pencils. Personally, I like the Moleskine sketchbooks because they are small and open flat, so you can sketch on the double page spread. These sketchbooks also have a ribbon bookmark and an elastic band to keep them close and avoid the pages being damaged during transport. The truth is that once you start sketching, I bet you will own more than one sketchbook…

Sketch of one of my daughters painting -  done with a Pentel Color Brush (steel blue)

As far as equipment to sketch is concerned, you are spoilt for choice: pencils, graphite pencils, pigment ink pens, permanent felt pens, biro pens, fountain pens… black is the most used colour, but sepia looks nice too, in particular if you apply a colour wash on the drawing. In this case, make sure that the ink you use is permanent. Another interesting option is to sketch with brush and ink. The technique is more difficult to master but the advantage is the variation in the line thickness from a fat line to a very thin one. Art shops stock brush pens with various ink colours.

For colours, add to your sketching kit a selection of coloured pencils or a small box of watercolours. A travel box with twelve half-pans and an integrated palette is all you need. If you use watercolour or watercolour pencils, a brush pen is a good investment. These brushes have a synthetic tip mounted like a fountain-pen with an in-built water reservoir. This way, you don’t have to carry around a bottle of water.

Saturday market in Bovey Tracey - Done with sepia PITT artist pen and watercolour wash

Regarding subject, you can sketch landscapes, still life, figures, etc. Sketching is a good way to fill these little pockets of waiting time: in the train, at the tube or bus stations, or waiting at the post office. Inside cafés and restaurants are great places to sketch. Order a coffee a start drawing people around. And if your subject moves, just start a new sketch on the same page.

Sketches are not meant to be finished work. Spontaneity is better than a perfect but stifled execution. When he talked to Brassaï about Matisse’s numerous iterations of the same drawing, Pablo Picasso questioned this approach and concluded: “In drawing, nothing is better than the first attempt.” I agree with this precept. Not all drawings are good, but you will get some excellent drawings from first attempts… The trick is to make many first attempts when tackling different subjects.

A basket of lemon outside a grocery store - Done with Pentel  Color Brush (Sepia) and watercolour

Forget the eraser and skip the initial pencil drawing. Be brave and use an ink pen to trace your drawing. If a line does not look right, just trace another one next to it. Working this way will keep your drawing fresh, spontaneous and will improve your drawing skill in no time.

If you need inspiration, there are many blogs and websites with sketches by various artists. I would recommend that you check Urban Sketchers , a collective blog that features a variety of styles and will inspire you to start drawing everyday and experiment with different subjects and techniques.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Eden Project - Outside sculptures

Last week-end, my wife and I visited the Eden Project in Cornwall (England). This is a unique botanical garden that was built ten years ago on the site of a  disused claymine. The domes are huge. If you visit the region, don't miss this garden.

The domes are climate controlled glass houses and host different ecosystems: rainforest, Mediterranean...

The gardens are dotted with sculptures and I really like the way they mixed art and plants.

I indicated the name of the artist when I could find it.

Horse made of driftwood by Heather Jansch

Industrial Flame Plant by David Kemp

A very big wasp... and my brave wife


WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. The WEEE Directive obliges manufacturer to recycle a number of equipment like washing machines or computer. This gigantic sculpture is made of equipments that must be recycled.

There are more sculptures inside the domes, but this will be for another post.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Out of our minds by Ken Robinson – Book review

This is a big book, not because of its length (200 pages), but because it contains large ideas. If the style makes it easy to read, the ideas developed in this book will make you pause and think.

It is less a “how to” book than a “why” book on creativity. Although Ken Robinson’s interests lie in education, this book will captivate anyone interested in creativity. It will give you a framework to think about creativity in our society and in your life.

Ken Robinson gives his definition of creativity: “imaginative processes with outcomes that are original and of value.” He rightfully insists on the fact that “Creativity is a process, not an event.”

The book contains some interesting developments on the difference between art and sciences.
For the author, art should be recognised as a legitimate intellectual process. He denounces the “academism” that promotes core subjects such as sciences, mathematics and English as the only serious subjects. The other bias of academism is to give more value to analytical studies of art than practical experience of it when it comes to judge the value and experience of university professors (see: Art, another form of intelligence)

Favorite quotes

There are so many interesting passages in this book that it is difficult to just pick a few quotations. I selected some more relevant to artists.

“Creativity can be as much a process of finding problems as solving them.”

“Pictures give the whole pattern of ideas simultaneously. In these forms we can express thoughts that do not fit the structures of words.”

“Creativity is often a dialogue between concept and material. The process of artistic creation in particular is not just a question of thinking of an idea and then finding a way to epxress it. Often it’s only in developing the dance, image or music that the idea emerges at all.”

“Creativity is not purely intellectual process. It is enriched by other capabilities and in particular by feelings, intuition and by a playful imagination.”

See also my previous post: Art, another form of intelligence.

The Book

Out of our minds by Ken Robinson
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Capstone (5 April 2001)
Language English
ISBN-10: 1841121258
ISBN-13: 978-1841121253

Videos of Ken Robinson speaking at TED conference

Ken Robinson is an excellent presenter, so I recommend you watch some of these videos. They are as informative as they are entertaining.

Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity

Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution!

See also Ken Robinson: Changing education paradigms.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Is copying the masters bad or good?

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine"  – March 2011.

There is some controversy around copying old masters’ works. Many art teachers find it “old school” and fear that it will destroy students’ originality.

It is interesting to see how teaching methods have diverged between classical music and fine arts. If you learn to play the piano or classical guitar, the curriculum will lead you to practice the works of great composers: Mozart, Beethoven and Vivaldi… It used to be the case that art students copied the masters in the same way, to learn the craft. I can hear you say: “But musicians are interpreters, not creators; this is why they have to learn the repertoire.” Although it is true for most musicians, the same system of education has also produced fine composers and continues to do so. Even jazz musicians develop their own style by learning licks by other musicians. The guitarist Wes Montgomery got his first job because he knew all the solos played by Charlie Christian.

Still life from Chardin by Benoit Philippe 

The reward of making some copies during your studies outweighs by far the risks naysayers see in copying. There are some misconceptions on what these risks are anyway.

Whatever you do, a copy of a master’s work by you will always be by you. It will bear the imprint of your personality. I discovered this in my own copies, but the point was really brought home for me when I saw copies that Van Gogh did of Millet’s paintings of peasants. The resulting oil paintings were without question Van Gogh’s.

Knowledge of existing works of art means that you can make some reference to them in your work in your own way. Believing that we create without any influence is just unrealistic. Think about what the musician Charles Gounod wrote about the composer Camille Saint-Saëns : “He has a tremendous ability to assimilate: he would write at will a work in the style of Rossini, Verdi, Schumann or Wagner; he knows them all thoroughly, which is perhaps the surest way not to imitate any of them.”

Your master of choice does not have to be from past centuries. You can copy modern painters whose work you like. Just remember that if you copy living or contemporary artists, it will only be for your own education and you won’t be able to sell your copy (in Europe, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author).

Copying a work by a master forces you to study it very closely. You will spend time with a great work without noticing it, because you will be busy copying it. This will give you an intimate knowledge that only trying to reproduce the intent of the original artist confers. You can discover the artist’s sense of composition, palette and brushwork.

Use good quality photographs as reference material for your copy. Browse the art section of your local library to select high quality reproductions. Posters are also an excellent reference for copying oil paintings because you can see the brush strokes.

Here are a few exercises you can try:
  • Copy drawings from old masters, and then move to copying paintings;
  • Do a tonal copy of a painting with pencils, graphite or charcoal;
  • Copy the work in the same medium as the original work;
  • Try to copy a work using a different medium: for instance, try copying an oil painting with pastels.

Would you take a masterclass with Rubens or Turner? Personally I would. The key is to follow John Ruskin’s advice: “Copying art to learn from it, not to imitate.”

Monday, 7 March 2011

Ice and fire - oil painting

Ice and fire - Oil painting on panel (6"x8") by Benoit Philippe

This place is one hundred metres from home. Any other time of the year, it looks like an unlikely candidate for a painting: a few trees and a rumble of branches in a muddy area. But with fresh snow from the night and the rising sun on the horizon, the scene was simply beautiful.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

My best art productivity tool? a daylight lamp

Days are now getting longer, but how do you handle all these long winter evenings or paint when you only have the end of the day available? The answer is simple: get a daylight lamp. The risk, if you paint under normal electric bulbs or tubes, is that your colours won't look the same the next day under natural lighting conditions.

My lamp is a an easel model from the Daylight Company. It is big (not for travel), with a retro look, and does the job perfectly. If you want to save money, you can just buy the bulbs or tube and fit an existing lamp. There is a range of bulbs and tubes available.

It is worth investing in one of these lamps if you have not done so.